If you could spend the day in somebody else’s shoes, your perspective of that person would likely change. It’s not so easy to do in real life, but in virtual reality (VR), you can make anything happen.
Dr. Quentin Tyler is the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Michigan State University. He came up with the idea of a virtual reality app that can help people develop empathy.
“This app is a way to meet people where they’re at,” Dr. Quentin Tyler said. “It’s an app that will attract folks from a variety of backgrounds. Folks who are interested in virtual reality as well as folks who are interested in improving their diversity, equity and inclusion journey.”
The app is called A Mile in My Shoes.
“A Mile in My Shoes is a unique experience,” Dr. Tyler said. “It’s a creative immersion experience that allows individuals to see the world through the lens of identified individuals.”
Assistant Professor of Interior Design Dr. Linda Nubani helped him create it. She specializes in architecture and virtual reality. She says VR is a very impactful tool since it can model complex scenarios.
“When it first launched, I believe it was very commonly used in military applications, flight simulations, and medical operations and now it’s been commercially available, so a lot of researchers are interested in exploring the potentials of using virtual reality in other applications,” Dr. Nubani said.
So why not use VR to help somebody understand and care for a person who is completely different from them? Dr. Nubani says they were very intentional while building the app.
“Research showed that if you go for a third person and you’re constantly seeing your avatar, you’re going to develop a sense of ownership for that avatar,” Dr. Nubani said.
If you develop a sense of ownership for your avatar, she says it will be easier to uncover your unconscious biases.
“Unconscious bias to me is those small things,” Dr. Tyler said. “It’s those pattern behaviors that we have that are positive or negative that influence our perceptions, beliefs, and thoughts about individuals or groups.”
We use the word unconscious, because most of the time, people aren’t aware they’re being biased – simply because we don’t know what it’s like to be in that person’s shoes. The avatars in the app include an LGBTQ+ student, a student in a wheelchair, and a student wearing a hijab.
“An additional avatar is an African American male that may experience microaggressions upon entering the facility,” Dr. Tyler said. “You know asking that individual, 'do they belong here,' or even just looking at the pictures on the wall that don’t represent who that individual maybe.”
Dr. Tyler and Dr. Nubani have created surveys to help measure changes in empathy as people go through the app. The goal isn’t just to become aware of your own biases, but to learn how to behave when you witness uncomfortable situations caused by somebody else.
“How do you be an advocate, or an agent of change or speak up for that individual,” Dr. Tyler said.
Both say they hope to expand the app even more, adding additional avatars and expanding their reach beyond universities.